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Preventive Pro-Choice

By China P. Millman

In a perfect world, contraception would be 100 percent effective, no one would have sex until they were ready and every child conceived would be wanted. But in our world, method failure, bad judgment and rape are ever-present realities. We can spend our time lamenting their existence, and pretending they don’t affect us. Or we can face reality and do everything in our power to make terrible situations just a little less terrible. Emergency Contraception (EC) does not make the issue go away, but it does provide women a safe and effective option for preventing unwanted pregnancies.

Right now, Planned Parenthood is sponsoring new legislation in Massachusetts, which would allow certain pharmacists to dispense EC without a prescription and would require state’s hospitals to provide information to rape victims. EC is already available without a prescription in over 13 countries worldwide, including the United Kingdom and France. This month Planned Parenthood also launched a new program, which allows women to request EC from the organization’s nurse practitioners over the internet (Planned Parenthood already runs similar programs in Chicago, Indiana, Oregon and Georgia). These attempts to publicize and politicize EC need public support, because even though EC has been legal for over 25 years, it has thus far has been dramatically underexploited.

Since EC needs to be taken within 120 hours after intercourse, and is most effective within 24 hours, it is essential that women gain information about and access to the pill. However, many hospitals and pharmacies refuse to carry emergency contraception. A pilot program in Washington State, which provided EC directly through 130 participating pharmacies prevented an estimated 700 unintended pregnancies and 350 abortions in 16 months.

Emergency Contraception is not an abortion pill. If inadvertently taken by a woman who is already pregnant, EC will have no affect on the developing fetus. It contains a high dose of female hormone pills that prevents either ovulation or implantation, depending on how early the pill is taken. When taken as directed, the pill is up to 98 percent effective. EC is also not an alternative to birth control. 48 percent of unplanned pregnancies are due to contraceptive failure, such as a broken condom. EC is intended for emergencies.

Emergency Contraception prevented more than 50,000 abortions in 2000 alone, even though, according to a survey sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 25 percent of American women have never heard of EC and 66 percent did not even know it was available in the U.S. These numbers lead to obvious conclusions—if more women learn about EC, fewer women would ever need to consider, let alone seek, a potentially emotionally devastating abortion.

Emergency Contraception could also provide a major benefit to the more than 300,000 women, who are victims of rape each year in the U.S. About 25,000 of these women will become pregnant as a result of the rape, and almost 22,000 of these pregnancies could be prevented with EC. The American Medical Association guidelines state that women who have been sexually abused should be counseled about the risk of pregnancy and offered EC. However, 20 percent of hospital emergency rooms in Massachusetts do not offer EC to rape victims. There is mounting evidence that religiously affiliated hospitals are especially likely to deny patients information about and access. A nationwide survey of nearly 600 Catholic hospital emergency rooms found that 82 percent did not offer EC to women who had been raped. Only 22 percent of these emergency rooms would provide a referral with a phone number to women who requested it.

No one denies that the Catholic Church has a right to determine the acceptability of EC under Catholic doctrine, and the Church may certainly discourage use among its followers. However, the Church’s influence over the health care system gives them far greater powers to limit the rights of non-Catholic women. The Catholic Church operates 10 of the 20 largest not-for-profit hospital systems in the U.S. In some communities, a Catholic hospital is the only option. Because of the short window of opportunity, giving Catholic hospitals the right to limit information about EC essentially gives them the power to deny women their right to this option. However, unless new EC legislation becomes law, such hospital policies are unlikely to change anytime soon.

Anti-choice proponents commonly assert that being pro-choice means being pro-abortion. Incongruously, by standing in the way of increased access to EC, anti-choice groups are essentially forcing women to seek abortions that could have been avoided. Making EC pills known and easily available takes us one step closer to a fundamental goal of the pro-choice movement as articulated by President Clinton: keeping abortions “safe, legal, and rare.”

China P. Millman ’05 is an English Language and Literature concentrator in Eliot House. She is a member of Students For Choice.

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